Ah, Patrick Wolf. I was admittedly a little late to fully catch on to his charms, but nevertheless both his recorded material and live shows have beguiled me in equal measure. So it was with some anticipation that I awaited his latest fan-funded, two-album opus (The Bachelor is out now: Its sibling The Conqueror will be released next year. But you probably already knew that). The question is, does The Bachelor live up to my expectations? The answer is a slightly disappointing “not quite” – but that’s not so much to do with Patrick Wolf himself as it is the album’s smattering of celebrity collaborators.
It’s Alec Empire who has the most to answer for. First off, he co-wrote questionable first single ‘Vulture’ – a schizophrenic mess that can’t quite decide whether it wants to be a good song or not, and thus ends up being a pretty poor one by default. For every slick synth line there’s a clunky one, and for every good lyric there’s a bunch of pointless staccato utterances – the elements of the song just never really gel together very well. And to make matters worse, it had a really cringeworthy fanservice video. Ugh.
However, Empire’s second contribution to the record makes ‘Vulture’ look like a work of genius – ‘Battle’ is easily the worst thing Wolf has ever committed to record. A mess of dodgy electronic hardcore, chugging guitars, random shouting and lyrics that your average angsty teenager would probably have been embarrassed to have penned, at first it’s repulsive. Then it’s pitiable. And then it’s actually kind of amusing – none of which are reactions that Patrick was aiming for, I’d imagine. To top it off, the song feels pretty unneccessary, considering that he’d already put a similar message across far more eloquently in ‘Hard Times’.
I’d actually go so far as to say that Alec Empire’s contributions to The Bachelor are the only two Patrick Wolf songs I’d consider outright bad. So, congratulations Alec, you’ve sullied a perfectly good recording artist’s back catalogue!
The album’s most unusual contribution comes from actress Tilda Swinton, billed pretentiously here as “The Voice Of Hope”. She provides spoken word narration on three tracks, but her contribution unfortunately suffers from the law of diminishing returns. It starts out well enough on ‘Oblivion’ – a song which sounds like the further adventures of the poor bastard who got chased by ‘The Childcatcher’. The key is that her voice is used sparsely, and it doesn’t clash with Patrick’s – rules that are subsequently ignored in her appearances later in the album.
There are warning signs at the end of ‘Thickets’, where she repeats the same phrase over and over, like some sort of children’s story tape stuck on repeat. However, nothing can truly prepare you for the onslaught of inanities that she spouts over ‘Theseus’. She sounds like she’s belatedly auditioning for Jackanory: After a storybook-like intro, her contribution basically consists of repeating random parts of Patrick’s lyrics in really annoying received pronunciation. It’s at this point that you’ll pretty much be thinking “SHUT UP TILDA!” – rather than adding anything to the song, her voice just detracts from it by being an irritating distraction. It’s a shame really, because the song’s been around for ages – compare and contrast with this session version of it from 2003, and perhaps you’ll agree that it would sound better with all traces of Tilda Swinton removed from it. Ok, maybe the intro can stay. Maybe.
It’s up to Eliza Carthy to prevent the album’s collaborations from being a complete wash-out, and to give her credit she delivers brilliantly on the album’s title track, her throaty howl providing an excellent contrast to Patrick’s own vocal. In fact, she almost replaces him as the star of the show, so well suited is her voice to the song’s boisterous folky hoe-down – she serves a very similar role to Marianne Faithfull on The Magic Position‘s ‘Magpie’ (another collaboration that actually worked).
It’s a shame that most of the The Bachelor‘s collaborations fall flat, as the rest of the album is actually pretty good. ‘Hard Times’ is pacey, bold and stirring, ‘Damaris’ provides sweeping, lovelorn drama, and ‘Count Of Casualty’ is one of Patrick’s best juxtapositions of classical and electronic influences since Lycanthropy‘s ‘Paris’. The album even tackles personal issues, with ‘Blackdown’ and ‘The Sun Is Often Out’ both serving as moving tributes to Patrick’s late father (edit: Since originally publishing this post, I have discovered that ‘The Sun Is Often Out’ is actually a tribute to a friend of Patrick’s – a poet who committed suicide by jumping into the Thames. A moving tribute nonetheless). And perhaps it’s just because that it comes after the dirge-like ‘Battle’, but ‘The Messenger’ has an air of twinkling beauty about it -and importantly, it sounds like both the close of one chapter and the start of another, almost as if it serves to mark the transition between The Bachelor and The Conquerer.
Here’s hoping that The Conqueror chooses his ‘allies’ better than The Bachelor, eh?